© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber. 

  • Emily Rose Seeber

Stop worrying about their maths, focus on their literacy

Updated: Nov 8, 2019


When students start Year 9 in my school they are organised into mixed attainment groups. How do we know the groups are mixed attainment? you might say... Well, the students scores in their maths test are used to rank them, and then they are divided into six, apparently mixed, groups.

And I hear, over and over again, complaints about students' maths skills. They can't do physics because they can't do the maths. Or chemistry, or even biology.

But can the students really not do the maths?

In my experience student can do the maths. If you lay their work out as a calculation for them, they can rearrange the equation and solve it. Their level of error is as low as it would be in a maths lesson.

What students find hard is working out which method to choose, which equation to write, and what the values they have mean. AKA they struggle to decode (read) the question. This is a failing in their literacy, not in their maths.

The Word Gap Report (OUP) highlighted that 43% of Year 7 pupils have a limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning. They cannot understand the words in the questions, so they haven't got a hope in hell of answering them. This gap between the vocabulary we expect students to have to succeed in our subject, and their actual working vocabulary, widens as they move through school.

And the word gap leads to a lot of challenges for students (Word Gap Report):

So literacy doesn't just impact on student attainment in English: it has a massive effect on learning in sciences too. So while maths skills are important, we need to get out of our comfort zones and focus on literacy too.

The terminology conundrum

It is easy for us to forget the massive vocabulary of science, as it is so familiar to us. We are comfortable with the terminology and use it every day. But students don't. Scientific terms are only used in science lessons: students don't have the opportunity to manipulate our terminology by adapting it for their everyday usage.

We also have another problem: a number of the words that we use in science have either a different meaning outside of science lessons (e.g. precipitation or slag), or have a vague and imprecise usage in everyday English (e.g. energy and rate).

This means the vocabulary of science feels highly specialised and elitist to students.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't expect students to attain high levels of literacy and learn all the terms that we want them to. But it does mean that we need to be far more aware of our role as teachers of language as well as teachers of science.

We need to work on, and discuss strategies for teaching students scientific vocabulary, much more explicitly. Make time for sharing ideas in department meetings. Try out a range of strategies and report back. This is an area where we (or many of us) need to learn too.

What about all the other words?

But it isn't specialised science terms which are preventing students from doing the maths questions. So how is that a literacy issue?

The other problem with literacy in science, is that many of the words we use to link the specialised scientific terms are complex connective words in themselves. For example, therefore, hence, because, consequently, moreover, in accordance with, and subsequently, are all challenging words for students to conceptualise.

And we need these words to explain scientific ideas clearly.

Again, we shouldn't be ignoring these words and trying to stick to the simplest vocabulary we can in our teaching. Instead I think we should be trying to use as wide a range as possible, helping students and breaking those terms down where we need to using synonyms and antonyms, but broadening their conceptual vocabulary.

I started to use the word obtain when I realised how often it was used in exam questions, and it's no longer the stumbling block it once was. Broadening our language to broaden theirs works.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."

This Wittgenstein quote reminds us that without the language, students simply can't think about the ideas we want them to.

Science is all about pushing the boundaries of our, and our students', understanding. So do:

  • explicitly teach new vocabulary

  • break down vocabulary for students when required

  • anticipate which words are used differently outside of science lessons and plan for this

  • discuss strategies for building students vocabulary in science with colleagues

  • broaden the vocabulary you use in the classroom

We need to give them the tools to articulate the edges of their worlds.

Also for those of you interested in language, the 'Babel: Adventures in Translation' exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (until 2nd June 2019) is fabulous.

#mixedattainment #pedagogy #PCK #science

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